Almost Famous

When She Left Home in Sterling, Hilarie Burton Quickly Became a Teen Star. Despite the Red-Carpet Interviews and Jet-Set Life, She's Still a Virginia Girl at Heart.

By: Brooke Lea Foster

Slouched in a makeup chair at MTV studios, all legs and cornflower ringlets, Hilarie Burton is curling her eyelashes while reading a script for today's show.

"Who comes up with this stuff?" she yells, laughing, to a harried producer. Burton cohosts Total Request Live, the MTV answer to American Bandstand. She is the youngest VJ (video DJ) to host the show, landing the gig in 2000--two weeks after leaving Sterling, Virginia, for college.

A stylist pops into the makeup room: "Hey, I need you to try on some clothes." Burton grabs her chai tea and heads to her dressing room--a closet-size space with a tiny desk, two racks of clothes, a dressing mirror, and shelves packed with heels.

You'd never know she boarded a predawn flight from Wilmington, North Carolina, as she does every Friday. She leaves behind her star role--as Peyton on the WB's teen drama One Tree Hill--for the MTV work.

"I can't complain," she says, wriggling into a denim miniskirt and sliding into leopard-print high heels. "My life is so fun."

WHILE MANY OF HER HIGH-SCHOOL friends have spent the past few years hanging out at keg parties, Burton has been sidling up to stars on the red carpet at the MTV Video Music Awards and hosting rowdy MTV Beach House parties. She's interviewed plenty of superstars and formed her own opinions of them.

Justin Timberlake: "I hate that he's charming, but he is."

Christina Aguilera: "Sweet. She blew me off on the red carpet--then apologized on live TV for it."

Burton hasn't left her Virginia roots behind. When a casting director for the teen flick Win a Date With Tad Hamilton told her in an audition that she couldn't do justice to a West Virginian accent--it's where the film is set--Burton took offense. "If anyone knows how to do it," she says, in an exaggerated Southern drawl, "it's me."

While at Sterling's Park View High, she worked as a checkout girl at Giant and waited tables at the Buffalo Wing Factory. She was school president, an actress, and a cheerleader, all the while dressing in thrift-store clothes before it was cool. "If Hilarie had five minutes to herself," says her mother, Lisa, "she was bored."

Hilarie's father, Bill, took off work several times a year to drive his middle-school daughter to auditions in New York. He didn't prod her; Hilarie was the one who suggested to her parents she needed an agent. After roles in small productions at the Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap, her parents dedicated a seat at DC's National Theatre to her in the sixth grade. "To Hilarie," a plaque on the armrest reads, "A talented special star of tomorrow."

Burton decided to attend Fordham University in New York so she also could audition for film roles. She was there two weeks when her roommate dragged her to MTV to compete for a chance to interview then-TRL host Carson Daly. With little knowledge of pop music--she grew up listening to Elvis and Barbra Streisand--Burton wasn't all that interested in winning, which, she says, made her gutsier.

With only 30 seconds to interview Daly, Hilarie was determined to ask a question the other contestants hadn't thought of. "If your parents were rock stars," she asked, "who would they be?" Daly was momentarily stumped.

And Burton had a job.

"I DIDN'T KNOW SO MANY people would be watching me change today," Burton says to her publicist, standing in an off-the-shoulder silk top and green underwear. She's trying on clothes for an upcoming concert in Houston. After a 30-minute shoot, she'll hop a plane back to Wilmington, where she'll spend the next five days filming the popular One Tree Hill.

Burton keeps an apartment in New York but lives most of the week near the WB set in a huge Victorian house with younger brother Billy, 20, who was given a production-assistant job for the show. "It's great," she says. "I'll be like, 'Get me a Coke.' "

When Burton visits her home in Sterling, it's usually for 24 hours between flights. She celebrated her 21st birthday last year with old friends at DC's Platinum Night Club.

Trying to perfect her look for the concert, Burton tries a low-cut top she calls a "boob shirt" and shows off her "toe cleavage." She wants to look good for Pharrell Williams, whose hip-hop group, N.E.R.D., is performing. It's not because she has a crush. "He's a Virginia guy," she says. "I want to represent the state well."